Report 2011-121 Summary - September 2012

Probationers' Domestic Violence Payments:

Improved Processes for Managing and Distributing These Payments Could Increase Support for Local Shelters

HIGHLIGHTS

Our audit of the payments used to support domestic violence programs at Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, and Santa Clara counties over a four-year period highlighted the following:

  • Individual courts and county agencies use varying methods for collecting the payments made by individuals convicted of domestic violence crimes and sentenced to probation.
    • Each county had a high level of uncollected payments for the cases we selected and varying methods for collecting the payments.
    • Of the 135 cases over a four-year period we evaluated, many of the amounts initially assessed were not collected.
    • Some counties had higher collection rates than others—collections in Los Angeles County averaged 57 percent of the amounts owed while collections in San Diego County were only 12 percent.
    • Some specific practices in the San Diego County Superior Court likely contributed to its low collection rates—judges reduced (between 25 percent and 43 percent) the amounts assessed for a reason other than inability to pay.
  • Several issues can affect the collection of payments and the availability of funds for local shelters.
    • Courts differ in their interpretations of whether the payments are actually fines or fees, which can influence the circumstances under which payments can be waived or reduced.
    • Counties are permitted by state law to offset their collections with other costs—such as administrative expenses—thus reducing the amounts available for local shelters.
    • Santa Clara County did not distribute its domestic violence funds in compliance with state law resulting in a balance that grew to $715,000 in undistributed domestic violence funds.
    • Counties and courts distributed inaccurately the state and county shares of domestic violence funds.

RESULTS IN BRIEF

Our review of 135 domestic violence cases in four California counties—Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, and Santa Clara—revealed that individual courts and county agencies use varying methods for collecting the payments made by individuals convicted of crimes of domestic violence and sentenced to probation (probationers).1 The Superior Court of California's courts and their respective counties are responsible collectively for collecting and disbursing these domestic violence payments, the majority of which help support the work of local domestic violence programs that are shelter-based (local shelters). Of the 135 cases over the four-year period we evaluated, many of the amounts initially assessed against probationers were not collected although collections in some counties were higher than others. Moreover, our review of the distribution of funds from the payments identified several issues that reduced the amount of funding available to local shelters. Specifically, Santa Clara County had a fund balance that grew to $715,000 in undistributed domestic violence funds. Sacramento County accumulated a large balance equivalent to 20 months of disbursements. Further, counties and courts inaccurately distributed the state and county shares of their domestic violence funds, which led them, in some instances, to misdirect funds that they should have directed to local shelters. When county agencies and courts do not collect or distribute all available domestic violence funds, local shelters may not be able to provide as many services to victims of domestic violence as they otherwise would.

In expressing its strong intent to support local shelters throughout California and thus to support victims of domestic violence, the Legislature declared that the State has a present, growing need to develop innovative strategies and services to reduce the trauma of domestic violence. To help meet this need, the Legislature passed legislation establishing a funding stream derived from domestic violence payments by probationers. State law requires that each of these individuals make a minimum payment of $400 as one of many terms and conditions of his or her probation. However, state law specifies that a court may waive this payment if the court determines that the probationer has an inability to pay.

Our audit indicated that several factors could have affected the success in collecting probationers' domestic violence payments, including the economy's effect on probationers' ability to pay and other payment priorities established by state law. However, we were unable to correlate specific collections mechanisms with successful collection rates. For the four counties we reviewed, even the entities responsible for collecting the payments vary: In Sacramento and Santa Clara counties, designated county agencies collect domestic violence payments; in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, the individual courts and designated county agencies collect payments from probationers. During the four years under review, each county had a high level of uncollected payments for the cases we selected, but some counties had higher collection rates than others. For example, the four-year average for collections in Los Angeles County totaled 57 percent of the amounts that its probationers owed, while collections in San Diego County averaged only 12 percent of payments owed during the same time period.

Although we could not link the collections methods of these counties and courts with their collection rates, we noted some specific practices in the San Diego County Superior Court (San Diego Court) that likely contributed to its low collection rates. For example, for certain cases we reviewed, judges reduced the amounts assessed for a reason other than inability to pay. For the cases we reviewed, this practice resulted in the reduction of payments from between 25 percent to 43 percent of the assessed amount.

While we were investigating the reasons for variances in the collection rates and collections practices, we identified several other issues that can affect the collection of the payments and that may require legislative clarification. For example, courts differ in their interpretations of whether the payments are actually fines or fees. Although these differences have not affected the amounts assessed, confusion surrounding whether the payments are fees or fines can influence the circumstances under which payments can be waived or reduced. Further, state law does not explicitly state how to apply partial payments across different fine and fee priorities, and we noted inconsistencies during our review. This lack of clarity may have resulted in fewer resources for local shelters.

We reviewed six entities responsible for collections (collections entities) and learned that five prorate the payments they receive across different priorities. Los Angeles County Superior Court (Los Angeles Court) does not prorate payments because it lacks an automated system that would make such prorating possible. Instead, Los Angeles Court allocates the money collected from a probationer to the individual's domestic violence payment owed after collecting most of the other fines and fees the probationer owes. Although this practice may be lawful, it limits the funds allocated towards domestic violence programs.

We also noted that counties are permitted by state law to offset their collections with other costs, thus reducing the amounts available for local shelters. For example, to cover some administrative expenses, such as selecting and monitoring the local shelters with which they contract, some counties have deducted administrative costs from the revenue collected from domestic violence payments. Further, our review revealed differences in how counties have interpreted state law when computing such expenses. Legislative clarification would help to ensure that counties compute these costs in the manner that the Legislature intends.

According to current state law, once probationers remit their payments, each county is required to deposit two-thirds of the payments into a domestic violence special fund (special fund) dedicated to supporting local shelters. Collections entities are to remit the remaining one-third of the payments to the State. However, Santa Clara County did not distribute its domestic violence funds in compliance with state law, and this noncompliance resulted in a balance that grew to $715,000 in undistributed domestic violence funds. Instead of providing this funding to local shelters for their unrestricted use, Santa Clara County funded an advocate for domestic violence victims, who was located at one of its county offices, to provide referrals to local services, to act as a liaison between the probation officers and victims, and to advocate for victims as they moved through the judicial process. Subsequently, in March 2012 Santa Clara County disbursed the accumulated funds to four local shelters. Sacramento County also amassed in its domestic violence account a large balance equivalent to 20 months of disbursements for its contracted local shelter.

Finally, we identified other issues that reduced the resources available to local shelters. Specifically, counties and courts distributed inaccurately the state and county shares of domestic violence funds, and these incorrect distributions led them, in some instances, to misdirect funds that they should have distributed to local shelters. For example, we estimate that Sacramento County misdirected approximately $94,000 to the State because it missed a key change in legislation that adjusted the percentages of domestic violence funds that the State and the counties were to receive. When counties and courts do not distribute domestic violence funds accurately, and when counties do not disburse all available funds to local shelters, the shelters cannot provide as many services to victims of domestic violence as they otherwise might.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The Legislature should consider clarifying the following with regard to domestic violence payments:

  • Whether it intends for the payment to be a fine or a fee.
  • Whether collections entities should prorate payments across different priorities.
  • How counties should calculate allowable administrative costs.

San Diego Court should establish procedures to ensure that courts do not reduce domestic violence payments for reasons other than probationers' inability to pay.

Santa Clara County should implement a process to distribute funds regularly to local shelters.

Sacramento County should increase its contracted spending for shelter services so that it reduces the balance of its special fund to a level that is reasonable considering the needs of the fund.

Counties and courts that misdirected domestic violence funds should correct these errors and prevent incorrect distributions from occurring in the future.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The counties and courts generally outlined steps they have taken or will take to implement the recommendations directed to each of them. However, San Diego Court states that its court administration is not in a position to implement one recommendation related to the waiving and reducing of domestic violence payments.


1 Domestic violence crimes involve the physical or sexual abuse of any victim who has a certain relationship—as defined by state law—with the perpetrator.


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